Sounders nation breathed a collective sigh of relief Monday morning. Freddie Ljungberg returned to training camp at Starfire and it was back to business as usual as the Sounders FC continue their progression toward MLS First Kick March 25 against the Philadelphia Union.
Ljungberg jogged onto the field alongside several teammates as one group was warming up with a game of keep-away. He went straight to the middle playfully pushing aside Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, who smiled as he left the hot seat.
“I had a good greeting,” Ljungberg said after a short training session. “We had a good laugh and it was nice to see my teammates again.
After a warmup, the team got into three teams for short-field 8v8 games. Ljungberg sat out the first game, instead doing some conditioning with Steve Zakuani, but jumped in during the second. He got out on a run at one point, but was stopped by non-roster invitee goal keeper Patrick Lane, though the rebound spilled out for a weak side goal for Michael Fucito.
“He looked okay,” said Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid, noting his team’s designated player’s one-week absence. “He and I had a half an hour conversation on the phone last night. We talked about some things. So we’re happy to have that chapter behind us and to be moving forward.”
Ljungberg, 32, did plenty of traveling in the offseason, but was in his native Sweden for a large portion of it. There he did plenty of training, hopeful that the MLS could reach a labor agreement, but also wary of the possibility of a work stoppage.
“It’s been annoying with the CBA not knowing what’s happening. And for me personally, I’m 32 years old, and I can’t sit a year and not play football,” Ljungberg said of his absence. “Now it looks like it’s going to be resolved. At the same time, lots of clubs have been very interested, which is nice.”
Ljungberg wanted to make clear that interest came from other clubs and was not sought by him. They only interested him, he said, because of uncertain labor situation. Originally scheduled to expire today, the MLS and the MLS Players Union agreed late last week to continue negotiations until February 12 – a positive sign on the progression of labor talks.
“If there’s a strike or a lockout I can’t just sit and do nothing. The problem has been that there hasn’t been much information, and then all of a sudden it seems there is better news and there wouldn’t be a lockout. That’s when we decided that I would return to Seattle,” he said. “I have always said I really love it here and I want to stay here.”
This missed time should not be too much of a hardship for Ljungberg who missed a majority of the 2009 training camp while recovering from off-season hip surgery. In the English Premier League he had only four weeks of training camp for each of his nine seasons with Arsenal and West Ham United.
“A lot of training camps are four weeks until we start playing. So for me this is a very long one,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a big deal. At the same time, when we’re off, we’re in the gym and we train anyways.”
Ljungberg scored two goals and added nine assists in his first MLS season, playing in 22 games. He missed the season opener while recovering from the hip surgery and scored in his first MLS start, a 2-0 win over Toronto FC. He was at his best in the season’s final two games, notching four assists and setting up a fifth goal from a corner kick earning MLS Player of the Month honors for October.
He hopes to carry that late-season momentum into the 2010 season and towards the MLS Cup.
“I think that’s what we should aim for in the beginning of this season. People probably didn’t know who we really were before and the players didn’t know what to expect. Now they know, so that will make it more difficult for us,” Ljungberg said. “I think we did good on ground play last year, but I think now we have to develop that a little bit and maybe we can win the ball a bit higher up on the pitch. That way we will be much more dangerous up front and use our quick players to get scoring opportunities. That’s what we’re going to train on.”
Those long-term goals and visions are great, but Monday was just about getting back on the field with his teammates.
“It feels great,” Ljungberg said after a short training session. “I had some good laughs with the boys. It’s nice to be training again.”
The Sounders train Tuesday at Starfire before heading to Casa Grande, Arizona for the second leg of training camp. After returning on February 11, they will take a few days off before leaving on the third leg of camp in La Manga, Spain for two weeks.